Play looks deeper into pair's relationship

Review: Arena Stage makes us connect more with George and Lennie in this gripping revival of `Of Mice and Men.'

November 14, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Director Liz Diamond's production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men at Washington's Arena Stage does what an exceptional revival should do - it brings new insights to an old script.

Working with a strong cast, Diamond's simple, straightforward staging illuminates the 1937 play's themes and motifs, and allows us to meet the characters anew.

The theme of loneliness snakes through this production like the river that, for most of the evening, is concealed beneath the rough-hewn platform of designer Riccardo Hernandez's sparse, in-the-round set.

The river is only visible at the production's start and finish, when the platform splits apart. But the audience always knows the water is there. It is quite literally an ominous undercurrent. We discover that water helped bind the relationship between Steinbeck's protagonists - a pair of migrant workers named George and Lennie - and, in Diamond's staging, water will mark the end of their relationship.

George (a normal, capable guy played with immense understanding by Stephen Barker Turner) and Lennie (a mentally deficient gentle giant deftly portrayed as a sweet-natured overgrown child by Jack Willis) make an odd pair. But Steinbeck's point is that any pair is odd on the ranches where George and Lennie find work. This is a world of loners, and two guys who stick together are looked on with suspicion.

Furthermore, the characters who crave companionship all seem damaged in some way. Terrence Currier's aged Candy, the swamper, is missing a hand, and Ray Aranha's proud Crooks, the stable hand, has a crooked back. Both want in on George's plan to buy a small ranch of his own. It's almost as if the company of others will make them whole again.

Even the sole female character, the unnamed wife of the boss' nasty son, Curly (a malicious and weaselly Dwayne Nitz), is seen here not so much as a floozy, but as a lonesome young woman who simply wants someone to talk to. As Maggie Lacey plays her, she's basically a bored teen-ager. Just as Lennie doesn't understand his own strength, she doesn't understand the power of her sexuality. In a way, they're both flawed children, and when the plot brings them together, only tragedy can result.

The one character who's neither lonely nor a misfit is Slim, the highly respected mule driver, and Alex Webb imbues him with the assurance of a man who knows himself and also has a good understanding of those around him. It's a skillfully observed portrayal in a production filled with adroit portrayals.

Steinbeck originally wrote Of Mice and Men as a novella, or as he called it, a "play-novelette." It became a full-fledged play with considerable help from its first director, George S. Kaufman, who made the most of its theatrical potential.

George and Lennie undoubtedly were revelations to the play's original audiences. More than six decades later, we may think we know them, but Arena's production heightens our understanding of these two men, their relationship and, in broader terms, the importance of companionship.

Bereft of Lennie in the end, George also seems bereft of purpose. It's indicative of the power of Diamond's production that its wrenching final scene leaves you wondering what will become of George, and breaks your heart along with his.

Of Mice and Men

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington

When: 7:30 p.m. Sundays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; matinees on Saturdays and selected other dates. Through Dec. 9

Admission: $27-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

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